The people of New York City are hurting…badly. In my private practice I’ve noticed a new brand of depression emerging. It’s time for a special kind of therapy to account for modern, negative influences on our mental health.
What’s going on in the world that requires us to alter our approach to therapy for depression?
My best guess is that we’re witnessing the convergence of two influences on the collective mood of New Yorkers. First, we’re now in the throes of winter which means not much sunlight and many reasons to stay home and remain inactive. The weather alone is enough to rough most of us up and make us pine for summer days. The usual way we overcome the blues in warmer months feels less accessible at this time of year, making us prone to suffer more. The molecules are moving slower and so is our ability to mobilize to take better care of ourselves.
While the unfriendliness of February creates fertile ground for depression, there’s more to the New York experience right now — another brutal force that’s wreaking havoc on our hope, energy and mood.
The reality of New York City life includes constant reminders of a sickening political landscape, a painful and persistent sense of doom and gloom with regard to our new president’s choices.
I work with many people in my practice who are starting to feel a deeper sense of hopelessness than before, combined with a fear that they are not doing enough to prevent horrible events from unfolding in the future.
This psychological jab-uppercut combination seems to be making New Yorkers who are less prone to depression suffer like never before, and those of us who have a tendency to grapple with periods of depression are now experiencing a more vicious and enduring episode of low mood than we’re used to.
How should this new brand of depression be managed? Well, first consider the following dilemma. A lack of physical activity associated with winter leads to more screen use on and off of the living room couch. It’s too simple to just recommend that people put away their phones and stop watching the news. Some of us have enough inner strength to avoid the news, but the truth is that most New Yorkers tend to be hungry for information and stimulation, which propels them toward some form of news or social media containing the latest govern-mental disappointments.
It makes sense to stay informed even if we know you will pay a price because knowledge gives us the illusion of control and preparedness.
Another challenging influence for many New Yorkers is when family members have opposing political opinions. In this situation, I recommend to my patients that they create a new rule with family members whose opinions drive them crazy. The rule involves the full cessation of all political discussion. Since family members tend to irritate us much more easily than most people, it’s best to avoid all political discussion. The key to the success of this approach is that you have to model and enforce the rule. When you feel like you’re being taunted or pulled into a debate, or even if you just subtly promoted a political debate, stop it immediately and declare, “My happiness is more important than this discussion.”
Back to the dilemma of decreased physical activity in winter coupled with constant exposure to negative news. The type of therapy that will work best involves behavior in and out of psychotherapy sessions.
If you’re in therapy, taking time to process hopelessness should take center stage. In line with my belief that insight alone does not lead to behavior change, the actual transformative process needs to incorporate a plan to channel anxiety, negativity and sadness into action. This action must incorporate some form of creative self-expression combined with doing something to support causes that lie close to your heart.
Do we accept that things won’t change for four years and go into our own protective bubble, or do we make sure that our voice is heard? My sense is that acceptance really means oscillating between battling against reality on one side and finding a way to stomach what we can’t change on the other side.
To combat “modern depression” I recommend creating a group activity that you set at a predictable, weekly time in which you get together with like-minded people, turn off your phones and have an agreement that if political discussions must take place, they will be limited to the first few minutes of the get-together. Make a group agreement to do something active that doesn’t involve screens. It doesn’t matter what, just any activity that gets you talking about positive topics and avoiding negative news. It can be in the form of exercise, a day of board games, a trip to the museum or jazz club.
Share positive news. No sarcasm or political commentary. Just pure supportive, active fun. Let’s call these groups “apolitical support circles.” You can reflect in therapy sessions on what went right or wrong in your weekly circle, and any obstacles that prevented you from creating this safe space.
These circles address in a new way what New Yorkers so desperately need. And, of course, this treatment is not limited to New Yorkers’ needs. Most of us can benefit from apolitical support circles.
In today’s world, it’s getting harder to escape depressing news. It’s also becoming easier to isolate yourself by avoiding face-to-face activities with friends, which will only exacerbate depression. Why not create a non-negotiable group experience free of negative energy in which you can hold each other accountable for personal goals and grow together?
This is the new therapy New Yorkers need more of.